Whether or not E.T. exists, were not alone

Like most religions, Scientism has its articles of faith.

Science, the study of nature, has a premise — the scientific method — but no required beliefs about the unseen.

Scientism, by contrast — the conviction that there is and can be nothing beyond the reach of our physical senses and instruments — possesses a dogma as sacrosanct as any religion’s.

Among its unchallengeable doctrines is an abiding faith in the absence of a Creator, in the all-pervading rule of chance in the universe.

Unfolding from that axiom is the conviction that life materialized naturally from inanimate matter, and that the diversity of life on earth emerged from the trinity of a common single-celled ancestor, random mutation and natural selection.

Which leads in turn to another of Scientism’s creeds: that life must exist beyond our planet.

For if chance is the loom the universe’s fabric lies stretched on, there is no reason that only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy — a solitary orb in a universe of billions of stars and their satellites — would alone have spawned life and, eventually, intelligent life.

During the same eons that allowed natural processes on Earth to progress from inert elements to iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, should have done considerably better.

And yet, like the elusive laboratory experiment actually demonstrating the evolution of one species into another, the search for intelligent life beyond our planet has, so far, come up empty.

Not, though, for lack of trying.

Back in 1960, the first SETI, or “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,” effort was made, utilizing a radio telescope to examine star systems. In the 1970s and 1980s other SETI efforts were launched; among them, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay” (META) and META II, which searched the southern sky.

Plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer probes in 1972 and 1973; and the Voyager probes in 1977 provided similar information on two golden records, which also included recordings of pictures and sounds of Earth. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which included simply coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space.

In the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project sponsored by the Planetary Society that harnesses the computing power of 5 million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. More than 19 billion hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing. Nary a peep, nor a pattern.

The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn’t prove anything, of course. It’s a big universe.

But from the Jewish perspective, the absence of any reply to our shout-outs isn’t surprising. The Torah refers to many peoples but all are presumably earthly. Man, in Judaism’s view, was created by God here on Earth. No mention is made, at least in exoteric texts, of any parallel production.

Not that there is anything in the Torah to conclusively preclude the existence of life on other worlds. Rudimentary life, after all, exists in earthly places unmentioned in the Torah — from undersea volcanic vents to Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would be an unexpected development but hardly cause any believing Jew a crisis of conscience.

Even intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, while it would be more surprising still, would no more challenge a Torah-centered worldview than the discovery of some previously unknown aboriginal population in an unexplored corner of Earth. God created much that was discovered by man only with time.

For those, however, who desperately want to believe in humanity’s mediocrity, the apparent biological silence of the universe should be troubling.

Perhaps, they explain reassuringly, life’s development is contingent on a very specific chemical matrix. But that, of course, just begs the question, returning us to the uniqueness of Earth, and of man.

Confessors of the creed of Scientism are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of a recent $420 million space mission. On Aug. 4, the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off from Cape Canaveral to search, when it lands 10 months hence, for evidence of life on the Red Planet.

Although two rovers have been sending data from Mars for years, the Phoenix Lander will drill into the Martian equivalent of Earth’s arctic, believed to be a relatively bio-friendly environment, and will chemically analyze its soil and ice, in the hope of finding signs of life, past or present.

Should the tests in fact yield evidence of even the most rudimentary life, it will help keep hope alive in the hearts of Scientism’s high priests that other advanced civilizations might yet one day announce themselves. If, however, Phoenix comes up empty in its biology-quest, it will serve to further furrow the brows of those true believers. Or it should.

Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us.

What we do know, though, is that we’re not alone.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization